Festiva Piano Quartet playing for keeps at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts 2010

MOZART : Piano Quartet in G Minor K.478

MAHLER – Piano Quartet in A Minor

BRAHMS – Piano Quartet No.3 in C Minor Op.60

Festiva Piano Quartet: Cristina Vaszilcsin (violin), Peter Garrity (viola),

Robert Ibell (‘cello), Catherine McKay (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Tuesday 9th March

I can think of no higher praise for the playing of this group throughout the present concert than expressing the wish to hear them tackle, one day, (with the help of another violinist) a favourite work of mine, the Cesar Franck Piano Quintet. That’s not to say that I don’t want to hear them in other repertoire as well – in fact, one of the features of this concert was how completely and unselfconsciously the musicians found the style and voice of each composer’s music throughout the evening. To the Mozart work they brought strong, well-focused contrasts – dark and sunshine, tension and gaiety – knowing just when to “grip’ the music and when to relax. The relatively unfamiliar Mahler Quartet Movement was given concentrated and committed advocacy, with singing lines and deeply-dug intensities from all concerned, while the Brahms work added to the playing tensile strength and intellectual vigour, realising the music’s remarkable synthesis of romantic feeling and iron-wrought discipline.

I mention the Franck Quintet, because I couldn’t help being frequently reminded of it throughout the latter part of the concert, especially during the Festiva Quartet’s wholehearted tackling of the Brahms work – though Franck’s language and thematic constructions are of course quite different to Brahms’ in this Quartet, the works share a fair degree of nineteenth-century “sturm und drang”. No less heartfelt was the musicians’ approach to the Mahler, whose often feverish effusions in places put one even more in mind of the Belgian composer’s candidly-expressed outpourings. Again, the playing brought out the character of the music in each case, I thought, emphasising in Mahler’s work a certain febrile quality in some of the writing, while informing the Brahms Quartet with richer, deeper-throated tones, bringing out a more layered and complex web of expression.

First up, however, was the Mozart Quartet, the key of G Minor promising, as with other works from this composer, a vein of dark, agitated feeling colouring the music. So it proved, the players making the most of the music’s contrasting moods, the opening filled with foreboding and unease, and the second subject light and tripping, with some nice flashes of musical temperament in violinist Cristina Vaszilcsin’s work. It was playing that made the repeat a real pleasure to experience, as one could focus on different aspects of the music-making – the strong rhythmic support from Robert Ibell’s ‘cello, for example, and the clear, sparkling lines maintained by pianist Catherine McKay. The development’s surge and flow was nicely realised, the strands of melancholic feeling well-activated, with intense dialoguing between violin and viola (Peter Garrity), and an almost Beethovenian strength coming out in the piano part.

In the slow movement, the piano-and-strings exchanges exhibited grace and tender feeling, the violinist negotiating her extended “running” solo with deft elegance. The group generated great “schwung” in the finale’s concerted passages, the piano taking the spirited lead, and the individual strings allowing themselves some “glint” when negotiating their separate lines, occasionally setting against this lovely trio-voicing moments during softer episodes. The players enjoyed the work’s “teased-out” ending, Mozart treating us to a few bars of remote modulation before returning to the home key for a grand finish.

Mahler’s Piano Quartet Movement came from a work written when the composer was just 16, the rest of which he later destroyed, apart from a few bars of a Scherzo. It remains a fascinating glimpse of a “composer-in-gestation”, one whose characteristic fingerprints are already discernable. The piano-dark, brooding opening, with its repeated emphasis on a three-note motif swung between lyricism and angst, building up towards lines of running counterpoint, with every instrument singing its own song. The three-note motiv dominated the music’s central section, driving things to fever pitch in places, and creating what seemed like an unstoppable tide of impassioned feeling – full credit to Catherine McKay for her full-blooded pianistic flourishes, and to the strings for their similarly-expressed energies. The music and the playing continued to enthral, throughout contrasting episodes of exhausted calm (voices singing atop of murmuring piano chords), quickening tensions with occasional major-key flirtations, and exotic colourings (a gypsy-like violin solo leading a valedictory processional – very Mahlerian!), right to the hushed pizzicato ending.

But it was the Festiva’s playing of the Brahms Op.60 Piano Quartet which capped off an evening’s remarkable music-making. Big-boned playing, with full-bowings and richly dark piano tones captured the work’s opening, and made the contrast with the second subject markedly “tell”, the piano’s lyrical reflections answered with real depth of feeling, real “hurt”, conveyed by the rest of the ensemble. In places I could almost feel the players listening intently to their own interactions, while in others I had a sense of playing-for-keeps risk-taking, close to the edge of abandonment, as the music surged and seethed through the development. The performance had the feeling of a soul taking stock of its own strength after intense tribulation, and renewing its journey through sheer will.

The scherzo’s tricky syncopations were played with glint and fire and real “point”, with a dynamic range encompassing everything from a roar to a whisper, and a  storytelling impulse able to realise the suggestion of headlong flight with demons in pursuit. By contrast, the slow movement’s various instrumental combinations wrought magical results, ‘cello and piano beginning, followed by violin and ‘cello, and then violin and viola, each pair adding a different strain of feeling to the melody, whose eventual dying autumnal fall at the close evoked an atmosphere so beloved of this composer. The group caught the agitations of the finale’s opening, strings pounding in three against the piano’s four (and then swapping around!), the second subject’s hymn-like respite being overtaken by the restless opening music, the turbulence surging and abating throughout the development – exciting playing from all concerned! Catherine McKay’s emphatic march-like piano chords triumphantly proclaimed the hymn-like tune’s affirmations on its return, though to conclude the composer resolutely led the argument through a further agitated flurry and into the autumnal regions once again, the players determinedly and assuredly going with the music’s flow and delivering the final chords with proper and characteristic gruffness.

The muicians received an enthusiastic and well-deserved ovation from an audience whose enjoyment would, I’m sure, have helped spread the word regarding these St.Andrew’s concerts, in the wake of such exciting and involving performances.

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